Steven Squyres Doesn’t Mind Failure: An Interview with the Scientist behind the Mars Rovers


Artist portrayal of a NASA Exploration Rover

Even if you don’t know who Steven Squyres is, you know about his work. Currently a member of the physical sciences faculty at Cornell University in New York, Squyres, and his team members worked for a decade to develop a proposal acceptable to NASA that would allow the space agency to put “roving geologists” on the surface of Mars. The result was a pair of humble-looking rovers — Spirit and Opportunity — that resembled decked-out props from a Star Wars movie set. They launched toward Mars on June 10 and July 7, 2003 and landed six months later, on January 4 and January 25, 2004. The original goal was to drive each rover for about 44 yards in a single day and operate (from earth) an array of science instruments to examine the planet’s rocks and soil. At most, they were expected to last for 90 days. Remarkably, the scientists behind the project were able to continue communicating with Spirit until March 22, 2010. And Opportunity is still doing its job 12 years later and 26.5 miles from its original landing spot.


Squyres shared the amazing details behind this “ultimate project,” during the keynote session of MPUG’s Microsoft® Project Virtual Conference 2016. This event, which featured over 40 live and on-demand virtual sessions about all aspects of Microsoft® Project, is free to all MPUG members on-demand. Every training session earns you a certificate of completion as well as PMI® professional development units (PDUs).

Recently, Squyres spoke with MPUG to explain why he’s okay with failure, what one of his biggest project challenges was, and what he really thinks about the movie, The Martian.

The initial idea, from what I understand, was to create a robot geologist. What could that achieve that a bunch of photographs couldn’t do?

What we wanted to learn was whether Mars was once a planet that would have been capable of supporting life. Was it once a habitable world? Mars today is cold, dry, desolate. It’s a horrible place. But there were these intriguing hints that we could see from orbit that it might have been warmer and wetter in the past. What we wanted to understand was the details of that.

What we wanted to do was really do geology. Geology is sort of like a forensic science in a sense. A geologist is like a detective at the scene of a crime. You’re looking for clues to tell you what happened someplace a long time ago, and the clues are in the rocks. Every rock will contain in its details, in its texture, in its chemistry, in its minerology, information about the conditions under which it formed.

Since it’s a nice, sunny, blue-sky day here in New York, I could take you on a walk here in some of the gorges of the Cornell campus and we could look at the rocks in those gorges and piece together from the details of those rocks a pretty comprehensive story of what it was like to be in this part of the world 350 million years ago in the Devonian period when those rocks were laid down. If you can get down on the surface, if you can touch the rocks, if you can look at them up close, if you can measure what they’re made of, you can learn what it was like in the past in a way that you can’t simply do with pictures from orbit.


Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

So the little wagons you had come up with were intended to be able to manipulate the rocks?

They were intended to investigate the rocks. What I’d like is to have a human geologist there. Human geologists have all sorts of capabilities that these Rovers don’t have. But given the schedule, given the budget, given the technical realities, the challenge that we posed for ourselves was to build the best robot geologist that we could and try to go and answer those kinds of questions.

Is it true that NASA actually rejected your proposal?

So many times. I spent 10 years writing a series of proposals to NASA to do something like this mission. Each one shot down in turn like so many clay pigeons over a period of a decade. Honestly, I’ve still got all those proposals. In fact, most of them are sitting on my desk behind me. I can look at them now and I can see the flaws. And the process by which NASA decides how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to investigate other planets is infinitely competitive, as it should be.

I can look at those old proposals, and I can look at the things we did wrong, and I can look at the lessons that we learned and how we made things better, and I can see why on our fourth try we finally got selected to do the job that we got to do. But it’s a very intense, Darwinian sort of process. It’s not a whole lot of fun once you’re going through it. and you’re getting all that negative feedback. But in the end, what we came up with was pretty good, and its quality had been honed by having gone through that intensely competitive process.

I know we’re going to hear a lot of detail in your presentation. But can you tell us about some challenge you faced in the Rover program and how you overcame it?

Once we actually got selected to do the job, there were all kinds of challenges. The most severe challenges, I think, really had to do with landing on Mars. There’s no runway, no landing pad. It’s just a rocky, bumpy, dirty, windy place.

And trying to build a landing system that would safely get our precious vehicles down onto the surface in one piece was really tough. When you arrive at Mars, you hit the top of the Martian atmosphere going Mach 27 — 27 times the speed of sound. And you have to come up with a system that will bleed off all that kinetic energy, slow your vehicle down and safely deposit it on a bumpy, hilly, rock-studded surface. That’s kind of hard.

The scheme that we used was actually derived from a landing approach that had been used successfully some years before on a mission called Mars Pathfinder.

We had to go and redesign a lot of the stuff, but basically it used a heat shield to slow you down ’til you get to a nice leisurely Mach 2. Then you throw in a supersonic parachute that would slow us down to a few hundred kilometers an hour. And then we fire rocket motors and inflate air bags and we let the air bags fall to the surface. They bounce and roll and roll and roll as much as a kilometer before they come to rest. And then you have to retract the airbag, open up the lander, and then Rover is all folded up inside and has to do origami in reverse to turn itself into a Rover. It was fiendishly complicated process.

And we had many, many, many horrifying test failures along the way. We were exploding parachutes, bursting air bags. There were lot of really bad experiences along the way. In the end we got it all to work, but it was not for the faint of heart.


Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Was that one of your creations that the Matt Damon character, Mark Watney, in The Martian was supposed to have dug out of the sands?

No. That was the Mars Pathfinder. That was the mission that preceded ours.

Did they get some of that stuff right in the movie?

I enjoyed the movie very much. I can quibble with some of the details. The movie was largely shot in a place called Wadi Rum in Jordan. And I’ve been to Jordan. I’ve been to Wadi Rum. I’ve been to Mars — virtually. This looked like Jordan. It didn’t look like Mars.

But what I loved about the movie and what it fundamentally got right was the NASA that I saw in the movie was the NASA that I know. That we-can-get-it-done spirit — it rang true. The way that people behaved, the way they handled challenges — it had the ring of truth to it, based on the years and years and years I’ve spent working with NASA.

That part of it, it got so right, that other quibbles about wind velocities and rock distribution on the surface are completely forgivable, as far as I’m concerned.

Last question. You’re going to have a lot of people who use Microsoft® Project listening to you speak. Did any of your projects with NASA use Project?

Ohmigawd, yeah. Sure. We definitely used it for tracking schedules and Gantt charts. The business of getting all of the pieces of the Rover together — I describe it as being like the tributaries of a river flowing together. You’ve got individual little piece parts, and those pieces of parts — they get tested. And then they go onto an electronics board and those get tested. And then they go into assemblies, and they get tested. And you put it together piece by piece by piece by piece.

This isn’t assembly line stuff. Everything is a one-off. Everything is a one-of-a-kind. Tests fail, things go wrong, and that pattern of tributaries has to shift to accommodate the delay, to accommodate this problem or that problem.

It’s all got to be done by the time we get to the launch pad because we’ve got a three-week-long launch window. If we don’t reach that window, we don’t fly. So the project management challenges that we faced were immense, and the tools that we used would be familiar ones to you.

Artist portrayal of NASA rover courtesy of NASA/JPL/Cornell University.

Written by Dian Schaffhauser
Dian Schaffhauser is MPUG's editor. She's been covering project management, business transformation and topics technical as a journalist and editor since IBM released its first PC. She invites you to send your best story ideas for MPUG to her at She promises to let you know what she really thinks.
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  1. We hope to see you at Steve’s keynote address on Feb 23rd as part of the Microsoft Project Virtual Conference!

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